How to Accelerate the Development of Emerging Leaders

Clear and measurable goals, a system of support, and a means of challenging high-potential employees to stretch and achieve real results are the foundations for successful development programs.

High-potential employees (HiPos) are the most capable, committed, and valuable workers in any organization because they possess a high probability of success when presented with greater amounts of leadership responsibility. These are the employees whose contributions will be critical to determining the future success of your organization. 

Given the special mixture of talent and leadership skills required, it is not surprising that HiPo employees represent a small number of an organization’s population (think: 3 percent to 5 percent of the staff cohort). Further, research highlights a few important considerations:

  • HiPos produce 90 percent more work and will give about 20 percent more effort than non-HiPo employees.
  • HiPos are harder to retain, and given the disproportionate value they contribute, vacancies are costly. Their intention to stay is 10 percent less than all other employees’ intention to remain because they are well aware of the options that exist outside of their current employer.
  • A weak leadership bench almost halves profit and revenue growth.

Clearly, HiPos are important employees and finding and developing them is a high priority in any organization. Creating a program to identify and develop HiPos as a means to accelerate potential is common practice, but not all programs are successful at achieving their goals. In fact, Gartner research suggests more than 70 percent of HiPo development programs do not demonstrate return on investment.

Key Factors

To gain more insight into HiPo employees, we queried a number of well-known organizations about the inner workings of their programs. From this effort, we discovered a number of key factors that go into building a successful HiPo employee development strategy: 

  • Define a clear measurement strategy. At the outset, determine how to track goals. For example, some organizations assessed program effectiveness by comparing participants with non-participants (tracking career progression, attrition, performance ratings, promotions, etc.). Other groups looked at the engagement surveys of each HiPo’s team or sent out pulse surveys to solicit feedback on developmental progress. This gives programs more teeth and helps demonstrate ROI. 
  • Link the development experience with what is required to achieve the business’ strategy. Establish clear lines of sight between the learning objectives of your HiPo program and the strategy of your business. This produces face validity and increases the buy-in of participants and senior leaders because it gives the experience a purpose. For example, we worked with a regional bank that struggled to find its footing amidst an environment of rapid acquisition and technological transformation. The CEO determined all leaders needed to quickly improve in the areas of strategic thinking, leading change and driving innovation in order to compete in this volatile climate. Consequently, we designed learning modules and homework assignments to stimulate skill growth in these competencies.

In the book, “Optimizing the Power of Action Learning,” Michael Marquadt makes the case for creating group problem-solving opportunities that should be of great importance to the organization. This is not for minor issues or flights of fancy—the problem must be significant and urgent in order to generate ROI for the participant and the organization.

  • Assemble a team of stakeholders to support individual development. This typically includes the reporting manager, skip-level manager, and a mentor (such as a senior leader) from unfamiliar parts of the business or externally who can provide perspective on what it takes to succeed. On top of providing a support network and a sense of accountability, establishing formalized mentoring programs has been shown to increase participant engagement, job performance, and retention.
  • Create high transparency and accountability throughout the program. This means that both the HiPos and the team of executive sponsors clearly understand the developmental process and the desired outcomes. In order to facilitate this, we see many organizations follow some version of the following four steps:
    1. Request HiPos participate in an objective assessment of strengths and areas for development to improve self-awareness and create a personalized guideline for their development.
    2. Expect each participant to create a targeted development plan that is jointly reviewed with the manager and skip-level manager. Provide an external coach to support progress on the plan.
    3. Schedule regular reviews of HiPo development plans with executive sponsors to hold the participants’ managers accountable for pushing progress.
    4. Schedule regular check-in meetings with boss, participant, and executive coach to review progress and to ensure continuous feedback. 
  • Make executive sponsorship and participation meaningful and visible over the entire life cycle of the development program. This reminds HiPos that while much is to be gained through their participation, much also is expected of this investment. Further, it provides senior leaders with front-row exposure and the opportunity to build deeper relationships with program participants. We’ve seen this happen in a number of ways. For instance, a cohort of HiPos met quarterly during a 12-month period and each module featured at least one speaker who was a senior member of the organization.
  • Identify and assign a challenging business problem to stretch the participants’ skills. Taking on a challenging assignment is considered one of the most critical exercises for unlocking an employee’s potential. For example, one organization asked peer teams to generate creative solutions to a strategic business issue that needed to be analyzed during the course of many months. Teams were expected to work collaboratively and under the supervision of an executive leadership team member. Teams also were expected to present their final recommendation to the CEO at the conclusion of the product. This exercise forced them to learn from each other and to think differently. 
  • Create HiPo peer support groups. Bring employees from different regions, functions, backgrounds, etc., together for peer-to-peer learning and sharing of cross-functional knowledge. Having a group of “fellow travelers” provides a safe space to ask for help, share experiences, and consolidate learning.
  • Equip your managers with the skills to provide quality coaching and developmental guidance. A bad boss is one of the most frequently cited reasons for low morale and undesired turnover. Since reporting managers have the most direct contact with employees, the engagement-related behaviors they demonstrate have a great impact on employees. Gartner’s research suggests that HiPo workers who report higher levels of engagement were twice as likely to stay with their employer than their counterparts with lower engagement. Given the costs associated with employee turnover, which is exponential when it happens with HiPos, the link between retention and engagement has important financial and performance implications. 

Filling the Pipeline

Clear and measurable goals, a system of support, and a means of challenging HiPo employees to stretch and achieve real results are the foundations for successful development programs. Based on our conversations, there are some tried-and-true approaches that should be included in an organization’s approach to developing this cohort that is so critical to future success of the business. Combining on-the-job assignments with mentorship and formalized development planning is likely to accelerate an employee’s readiness to take on broader responsibility. What is more, building an effective program that challenges and supports your HiPo workers growth contributes to the continuity of your leadership pipeline. 

David Sowinski, Ph.D., is a partner at Vantage Leadership Consulting ( For more than 15 years, Sowinski has been working with chief executives and up-and-coming leaders to unlock their potential and better equip them to lead teams and adapt to changing business environments. His passion lies in accelerating executive readiness for taking on increased scale and complexity, and helping leaders make sustained behavioral change. Sowinski specializes in individual and team assessment and coaching, high-potential identification and development, succession management, and embedding internal talent management capability within his clients. He frequently presents at professional associations and academic conferences, and has published in the areas of organizational culture, leadership development, statistical methods, and employee selection. Sowinski has supported organizations from many different industries, including energy/utilities, financial services/trading, retail, technology transfer, higher education, health care, manufacturing, and entertainment. Sowinski also volunteers as a Board Member for Storycatchers Theater. Storycatchers helps youth in the Illinois criminal justice system transform their traumatic experiences into powerful musical theatre, developing the courage to become leaders and mentors in the community as they emerge from court involvement.

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